John Baer: Political ag-ony: All's fair, and fried

Posted: January 11, 2010

THIS COLUMN isn't nearly as entertaining as it might have been.

I'd planned to tour the 94th annual Pennsylvania Farm Show, in Harrisburg, with Philly biz-guy millionaire and Democratic candidate for governor, Tom Knox.

I imagined big fun, wending our way through hay and tractors, horses, goats, pigs and chickens, and a food court the size of a football field filled with fried things from the land.

I pictured an impeccably attired Knox eschewing his 46th-floor, $7 million Center City condo lifestyle for the rural sights and smells of the state on opening day of this year's show Saturday.

I saw us mingling with those who toil in the soil as we viewed the nation's largest indoor Ag event, the Louvre of Pennsylvania's farming community, home to a 1,000-pound butter sculpture that some say stops bad hearts on sight.

(This year's "real dairy butter" artwork is a life-size scene of four people and a cow at a kitchen table. Visitors were having their pictures taken in front of it.)

But, alas, Knox was a Farm Show no-show. Flu-stricken, I'm told. Ironic if it's swine, eh?

I asked if this setback occurred after he saw his Saturday schedule. But aide Josh Morrow said, no, he really was sick and could provide a doctor's note if needed.

So, instead of introducing Knox to a 350-pound Duroc sow (I'm talking about an animal, not a running mate) or urging him to try some deep-fried cheese, I heard speeches.

Four other Democrats running for governor - Scranton Mayor Chris Doherty, Montco Commish Joe Hoeffel, Allegheny County Exec Dan Onorato and state Auditor General Jack Wagner - pandered, er, spoke to a group called the Penn Ag Dems.

I figure there are 12 or 13 Democratic farmers in the state, but they must have brought all their kin. The meatloaf/mashed-potatoes luncheon was 200 folks strong.

How'd the city-boys do? I wouldn't say there's a Best of Show, but I'll hand out some ribbons:

* BEST PUREBRED: Pittsburgh's Onorato, the Dems' front-runner, was impressive in a touch-all-bases approach. In a 10-minute spiel, he told of bringing new development to a rusted county, cutting taxes and consolidating services. He rattled off Ag stats. He was quick to remind his audience that he did the same luncheon last year, despite a snowstorm. He made a gracious reference to other candidates, and he had a large stack of his six-page "Plan for Agriculture" at the door for attendees to grab on the way out.

* BEST NON-PANDERER: Scranton's Doherty didn't even try to pretend that he's one with agriculture. He took just four minutes for his basic message: It's all about jobs, and jobs come when places become nice places to live; "Pennsylvania is not Harrisburg," and Scranton is a model for what can be done in terms of investing in local growth. The third-term mayor said, "I've got the recipe and the resume for success." I think he uttered the word "farm" once. But there was no stat-rattle, no position paper - a panderless showing.

* BEST GOODS-DELIVERER: Hoeffel, who has run for U.S. Senate and has served in Congress and the state House, wanted to run for lieutenant governor and now is running for governor. He knows what interest groups like to hear. In eight minutes he talked not about himself but about farmers' needs, from broadband access to restored budget cuts, and the need for all to "recognize the importance of agriculture in our society." He, too, brought and distributed an Ag position paper.

* BEST OF STUMP: A very enthused Wagner used one-liners and populism to more than once draw actual applause, the only candidate to do so during his remarks. He praised the Ag Dems ("My hat's off to each and every one of you"), promised to be agriculture's "advocate," said he'd signed up for a cow-milking contest, touted his audits as taming sleazy government and said that as a state Senator he pushed to reduce the Legislature's size. "It takes guts," Wagner said. "First and foremost, I'm a public servant . . . I work for you. I listen to you." The audience seemed to listen to him.

The show, including 10,000 exhibits, 6,000 animals and cuisine-de-county-fair, runs through Saturday. Admission's free. Parking is $10. And the pols are mostly gone.

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